Origin of the Beer Sparkler

The Road to Wigan’s Pint – and the North’s

A beery controversy in the U.K. since the 1970s is whether the “sparkler” is good for beer. A sparkler is a perforated ball fitted to the end of the tap. It aerates and forces CO2 from the beer as the handpump draws it from the cask. The pint acquires a dense head and creamy texture.

Without the sparkler, cask ale pours fairly flat with a loose, thinnish head that dissipates quickly. Serving the pint sans sparkler is popular in the south of England. In the north the sparkler is generally liked (custom can vary by sub-region and pub).

You don’t read much today about “sparkler – is it good or bad?” but oceans of ink and bandwidth have been sacrificed in the past to a cause that seems delphic to non-initiates.

It’s not that the hard core has tired of the controversy. Newer issues arise and attention turns elsewhere.

Today the main issue facing cask ale is whether CAMRA, the U.K. beer lobby that saved real ale, should promote other forms of beer. The American style of fizzy, well-malted and hopped beer is now popular in the U.K. CAMRA will probably have to adapt to the new reality.

Meanwhile, the matter of sparkler and cask ale quality remains. For what it’s worth, I prefer the bitter style of cask without the sparkler. Its effect seems to blunt hop flavour and generally flatten out taste.

We used to see the sparkler at some cask ale outlets in Toronto but lately the beer is pulled without them. There is some irony in this as if a sparkler improves any beer it is probably American IPA – the blunting of flavour actually improves some of it.

The sparkler was referred to parenthetically in a 1949 brewing journal article by J.W. Scott, “From Cask to Consumer”. Initially I thought it was a post-1945 invention, or perhaps an expedient to make thin, wartime beer more attractive in the glass.

In fact, its use well precedes that date.

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

The first ad I saw left off the “l” in Hotel, or the upload to Google Books did that, and I thought the “Ince” must be a misprint of another kind or imperfect uploading again. But no, Ince is a locality nearish to Manchester, Ince-in-Makerfield. (About 17 miles).

The above short article is from pg. 707 of the November 1, 1885 issue of “The British Trade Journal and Export World, Vol. 23”. It explained what Barker’s device does, indeed exactly as people describe the effect today. The sparkler makes flat beer seem more sparkling by agitating the beer and creating the creamy effect.

The ad above is from the same issue of the journal mentioned.

Anyone familiar with beer knows you can swirl the glass to pick up the foam, or use a stirrer of some kind – Barker’s invention did the same thing, but methodically.

Cask ale of course has no CO2 injected at the brewery or pub so as it pours fairly flat, the sparkler would have enlivened pints that looked unattractive. For some reason the south has never minded flat pints, it may be palate-related, it may be the desire to have a brimful glass.

I cannot find any trace of a Crown Hotel in Ince. But there was one – and is one – at 106 Wigan Road, New Springs, near the canal. Ince was a kind of suburb of Wigan, itself some miles from Manchester.

New Springs is only two miles from the centre of Ince. You see its Crown Hotel pictured, a handsome house that looks old enough to have been the locale where Barker did his field work.

Maybe he lived in Ince and worked at the hotel, or used the hotel as a business address. It’s a nice looking pub innit? It is still going strong and gets fine reviews, see some details here. It serves, need we add, cask ale, presumably through Barker’s Aerator, formal name of his device.

In this Google maps view, you see the route from Ince to the Crown Hotel. The route wends further to another Crown Hotel in Worthington. That is another old public house, now closed. I thought it might have been the place Barker did his testing.

But Worthington is seven miles from Ince, likely too far for Barker to have travelled there unless he did so intermittently.

I feel fairly certain his Crown Hotel is as pictured, at 106 Wigan Road – unless you sleuths reading – you know who you are – uncover a Crown Hotel in Ince. (If you do, a pint on me, but you must meet me in Toronto. Okay, two pints).*

And Wigan, for non-Britons reading, is Lancashire – up north you know, so that part ties in.

N.B. One has to admire the hyperbole of Victorians. The sparkler was said to be “the most ingenious invention of the age”. Well, not quite, albeit Barker did quite well anyway. Still, millions of frothy pints beloved by Northerners and other Britons mostly are due to him. He should be remembered, even if palate purists will grumble.

Note re images: the first two images above were sourced from the 1885 journal article linked in the text. The third was sourced from this Google Maps view, and the last, from the Google Maps view linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*In fact reader Roy Pearson has shown there was a Crown Hotel in Ince, tenanted by Barker, see his message in the Comments. Thanks to Roy for straightening this out.


11 thoughts on “Origin of the Beer Sparkler

  1. I am from the north and travel to London often around 6 times a year various parts so I visit lots of London pubs. I have tried beers with a sparkler and without. And I have to say I prefer the flavor and mouhfeel of a sparkler. Wethe rtou use a sparkle or not should be he customers choice but I’ve been in London pubs that have almost shouted at me telling me it makes the beer uncontrollable and wastes beer? Now I’m a barman have been for decades and I don’t lose anymore beer using a sparkler than not using one. We are happy to accommodate both ways. But I prefers the mouthfeel of the sparkler to the rougher southern style pint

  2. Rob misleads a bit here Gary. In no way is the main use of the sparkler to disguise flat beer. That would mean that huge swathes of the North and Midlands, most of Wales and more are being systematically fooled. Hardly.

    Au contraire use of a sparkler on flat beer makes it even flatter. That is obvious when you taste it. In a small minority of places the misuse of the sparkler may happen, but like as not it likely stems from poor beer keeping in the first place.

    He is right about the myth that cask beer is naturally flat. In cask beer condition is all and it is poor cellermanshio that causes flag beer.

  3. There was a Crown Hotel on Manchester Road in Higher Ince. The pub closed in the 1970’s.

    According to an entry in the London Gazette in 1886, George Barker was indeed the ‘licensed victualler’ at the aforementioned pub. See http://bit.ly/2yYONKo

    The existence of the Crown Hotel in Ince is also confirmed in articles on the Wigan World website – see http://bit.ly/2zGDDqH.

    Hope this helps to provide some clarity.

  4. The sparkler! A debate if ever. I lived in England for 3 years. Northern and Midland breweries tended to prime their beers and Southern breweries did not. The former used sparklers as their customers liked a pint that poured with a tight creamy head that lasted all the way to the bottom, while the latter did not, preferring a beer with a pancake head. I prefer a sparkler as I like a tight creamy head to a depth of 3/8″ on a pint. I do not prime cask beer. I trained as a brewer in London. A cask beer should be clear as a bell, which most breweries here seem to ignore. Quality ale, whether unfiltered or filtered should be crystal clear.

    • That is very helpful Charles, thanks so much.

      Why do you consider clarity vital, is it because you feel a haze makes the beer too yeasty in taste? Or is it an aesthetic thing? Thx again.


  5. Flat-caskers…rejecting the science and bubbly evidence at hand.

    By the way, when one finds the rare beer engine in the U.S., more often than not, the handpump does have a sparker head attached.

    Thanks for the story, Gary. Good sleuthing.

  6. “Cask beer pours flat” is a fallacy that is often repeated by sparklerites to justify the use of their devilish device. Of course, some cask beer does pour flat due to lack of condition, and the real use of the sparkler more often than not is to disguise that fact until the unlucky punter has been parted from his money. But it depends on the condition – properly conditioned beer is not flat, and will produce a loose, rocky, foamy head without the aid of a sparkler. (The same argument is used about gravity dispense, equally falsely).

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